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Interview: Safely in Sweden, migrant children can fall through the cracks

In 2015, Sweden received tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, many fleeing war or violence, who either made the dangerous journey alone or who became separated from  their parents along the way. In doing so, Sweden demonstrated why it has a reputation as a global leader in providing sanctuary to children in need. But many of these kids experienced abuse in their homelands or during their journey and haven’t been getting necessary care in Sweden – sometimes even after asking for help. Amy Braunschweiger talks with researcher Rebecca Riddell about these kids and why they are falling through the cracks.

Tekle S., a 16-year-old Eritrean boy, looking out a window in his group home in Gothenburg, Sweden.  © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

What’s happening with these children?

Over 35,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Sweden last year, an unprecedented number. The kids are mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, followed by Eritrea, Somalia, Iraq and Ethiopia. Some of them started off alone and some were separated from their families by smugglers. A number of children said that their parents were killed in their home country.

Although by and large kids told me they are relieved to reach Sweden, I found they aren’t always getting what they need and what should be available to them under Swedish law and international standards. Many aren’t getting health checks, psychosocial counseling and support or even basic things like timely meetings with social workers. Some are experiencing delays of more than three months in getting appointed legal guardians – people who help kids navigate both Swedish society and government bureaucracy – as well as delays getting into school.

Karam, 16, told us he was held captive by ISIS and forced to watch people being tortured. He has flashbacks and trouble sleeping, but although he asked for help, he’s only seen a mental health specialist once in the seven months he’s been in Sweden.

Nour T., a 16-year-old Syrian girl, at a group home in Gothenburg, Sweden.  © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

What about the specific needs of girls?

For unaccompanied girls, delays and inadequacies in care are especially worrying. Girls are at a particular risk of rape, sexual assault, and exploitation before, during, and after migration. Also, according to the Swedish government, about a quarter of the girls who applied for asylum in Sweden are from Afghanistan, where forced marriage and child marriage are common.  About a third are from Eritrea and Somalia, where they may have undergone female genital mutilation. These issues demand a particular psychosocial, and sometimes medical, response. Psychological research from northern Europe shows that girls who are resettled in new countries are at a higher risk than boys for post traumatic stress disorder and depression.

We found that Sweden needs to do more to help these girls

I spoke with Lana, who had been physically attacked by a group of men during her journey. She hadn’t told anyone else about this, yet social workers should have been trained to ask about and screen for this. Because no one knew about Lana’s experience, she hadn’t gotten any psychological care. These girls should be screened and referred for needed support, but long delays and a lack of expertise among providers and caregivers mean that children aren’t always getting the care they need.

I spoke with Nadia, from Afghanistan, who said she was raped 12 nights in a row by the man who smuggled her from Turkey to Greece. Although she told her social worker in Sweden, she didn’t receive any medical or psychological support. She was living in a group home with boys despite specifically asking to live only with girls because of the rape and harassment she experienced on her journey.

Gender equality is rightly valued in Sweden, and some officials we talked with believed having boys and girls live together in group homes could reinforce this equality. But as in Nadia’s case, decisions about housing should reflect the best interests of the child. Their views and vulnerabilities and  traumas they’ve experienced should be taken into account.

So most of the children live in group homes?

Yes – and Sweden should be commended for not detaining unaccompanied children, as far too many countries have done. Instead, authorities have been resourceful, converting  houses, hotels or nursing homes – whatever’s available – into “group homes.” Some children are living with foster families, some are in apartments.

Wafa S., a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan, doing his homework at a group home in Gothenburg, Sweden. He wants to continue his education but he told Human Rights Watch the long asylum process sometimes discourages him as he doesn't know what his future holds.  © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch
Wahida N., a 16-year-old girl from Afghanistan, in Sweden for five months, anxiously awaits a decision on her asylum claim so she can continue her life. © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch


What’s the asylum process for these kids look like?

It can be scary. For the kids who have fled ISIS or the Taliban, the fear of being returned is very powerful.

Because of the influx of asylum seekers in the past year, Sweden understandably has a backlog in processing claims. Three years ago, it would have taken Sweden an average of four months to process each child’s case. One official told us it might now take up to two years. But unaccompanied children’s applications should be prioritized, as international stardards require.

Extended periods of uncertainty can have a profound effect on the healthy development of kids, according to UNICEF. Kids process time differently than adults, and a year-long wait could feel endless. Also, depending on their age and situation, children can have a harder time recalling past incidents relevant to their asylum claims than adults.  

I spoke with one girl from Eritrea who’s so worried about her case she can’t focus on school. Another boy I spoke with said he had lost his appetite because of how worried he is about his future and being granted asylum.  

Tabish P., a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan, practices reading Swedish at a group home in Gothenburg. Tabish told Human Rights Watch he was in Sweden for over four months before he was appointed a guardian, met with a social worker, or visited a doctor. © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

Did any child’s story stand out to you in particular?

The first day I was interviewing kids in Sweden I met Abed, who was 14 and from Afghanistan. He was living in a log-cabin-style hotel and conference center that was retrofitted to be a group home in northern Sweden, where there was two feet of snow on the ground.

He had arrived a couple months before. Abed told me he lost his mom to cancer and his father was killed by the Taliban. He fled when his uncle tried to get him to join the Taliban. When he first arrived in Sweden, he had been placed with a foster family and was really happy. He told me his foster mom was like a new mom to him. He thought this was his new home, his new family, but after a little more than a month, he was moved to a group home. He was devastated. The people working at the group home said he would eventually go back to that family, but instead he was moved to a new group home. He was already a small kid, but it seemed like he got smaller as he told this story, he was so upset. “Why did they lie to me?” he asked me.

No one had told him that in this municipality, some kids were temporarily placed with families while they created group homes. Also, no one had enrolled him in school. If they had, he could have concentrated on studying, been engaged with something other than worrying.

Ammar G., a 17-year-old Syrian boy, in his room at a group home in Gothenburg, Sweden. He uses social media to communicate with relatives and friends back in Syria.  © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

He also hadn’t been assigned a legal guardian to look out for his needs and make sure he understood what was happening.

Happily, as we were saying goodbye, a staff member from his group home told him he had he had just been given a guardian. He smiled and looked relieved to hear the news. I was relieved, too. It seemed a step in the right direction.

Are many of these kids not in school?

Sweden has a policy of trying to get kids in schools within 30 days of their arrival, but that wasn’t necessarily the case last autumn. We talked to numerous kids who said that they hadn’t been able to enroll in school for over a month. In some municipalities, guardians had been responsible for enrolling kids in school, but the delays in guardian appointment meant municipalities scrambled to make other arrangements. Once kids are enrolled in school, they usually attend intensive language classes until they’re ready to transition into a regular classroom.

Karam B., a 16-year-old boy from Syria, pointing to equipment for the Swedish sport of floor ball in his room in a group home in Gothenburg, Sweden. He told Human Rights Watch that the sport is his new favorite hobby and helps him deal with the trauma of surviving ISIS captivity and the uncertainty of the long asylum process.  © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

While I understand your concerns about the delays, life in Sweden for unaccompanied kids sounds better than in some European countries, like Greece. Why are you focusing on Sweden?

Sweden has, in many respects, been a leader in welcoming unaccompanied migrant children. Other countries should follow Sweden’s example, including how they’ve avoided detaining children. At the same time, its important to recognize the shortcomings in the Swedish system and ensure they are fixed. Most of these children will live in Sweden for the foreseeable future, and meeting their needs during this important transitional time is the best way to ensure children start their lives in Sweden on the right foot and for their long-term integration. These issues are important not just for the tens of thousands of children in Sweden but also relevant for all EU countries grapping with the challenges and opportunities of resettlement.

What do you want to see happen?

Sweden’s government has already taken a number of steps to help improve these kids’ situation, and the volunteers and service providers I met really impressed me. But there’s more to do. Sweden should make these children’s asylum applications a priority, and ensure they are assigned guardians shortly after arriving. Local officials are responsible for a lot, from appointing guardians to arranging for psychological support and housing. But the national government should improve its support to municipalities and make sure kids are quickly getting what they need. The national government should  also collect more data on these kids, including on housing, health screenings, and school enrollment. If it does this, Sweden will continue being a model for other European countries.

Sweden should also avoid the temptation of making life harder for these kids –  whether the motivation  is saving resources or detering other arrivals. A potential new law could limit some children’s ability to bring their parents to Sweden. It would also require an annual review of some children’s status to see if they can be returned to their homeland. Both changes could harm children’s wellbeing and undermine their integration in Sweden.

Afghan boys playing soccer at a group home in Gothenburg, Sweden. © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch
Afghan boys on a bike ride near their group home in Gothenburg, Sweden. © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch


These kids know what they risked to get here. One boy from Eritrea described to me how he nearly drowned in the Mediterranean, when his boat from Libya to Italy began taking on water. When I asked him why he got on such an unstable-seeming boat, he said, “You have no choice. If you stay in Libya, they can kill you.”

They’re also already adjusting. I was surprised how much we talked about sports, or food, or homework or art. In a lot of ways, the kids are already preoccupied with the everyday concerns of teenagers. Sure, some might have more trouble than others with cultural differences and making friends, but they’re rebuilding their lives.

We have used pseudonyms for all children interviewed. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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